July 21, 2019

Sermon: Pardeeville: July 21,2019: Amos 8:1-12, Colossians 1:15-28

          This process of preparing for this time in our worship is a bit of a strange exercise. It’s not like anything else you do. You should try it, really. It changes you.

          The thing that catches my attention today about all of this is how some of these times come easy, and some come hard. Some are just poised and ready to pop. The research has been thorough and effective, the context is ripe, the analogies are easy to figure out, and they just slide right out. Others come kicking and screaming, fighting you all the way.

          Then there are the ones like this one. You get half way into thinking about the texts in front of you, like Amos and Colossians, and you feel like you’re back in school. You want to call in and ask for an extension. You’ve got a half dozen books on your shelf you want to read about this. There’s hard data about the way the world is you’d like to find. You’re willing to take an incomplete, to be able to take the time and get this right.

          As I looked at the implications of the angry prophecy of Amos, and the gentle caress of Colossians, my first impulse was to take a year and turn it into a book. And who knows, if the shelf life of this one is long, which is almost never the case, perhaps I will. I guess for now, I hope the shortness of this attempt will not frustrate you. But please know that it surely will frustrate me.

          Another thing that seems to keep rolling around for me these days is that each text I read for our worshipful consideration seems to have a solitary word that bubbles up and draws my attention. Often, as you may have heard me say before, it’s a good churchy word that we use a lot, but have somehow forgotten its meaning. This is the case today. I have two words for you that seems to fit quite nicely together in God’s lexicon of things, but for some reason, as Americans in 2019, seem to be diametric opposites for us.

          The first comes from Amos. I don’t know that I had ever even heard of Amos before I got to seminary. He was just one of those little books at the back of the Hebrew Bible that you had to remember the name of as you memorized the books of the Bible in order. You didn’t have to know what they said, you just recited their names.

          I know now that he was a bit different from the other prophets we read. He wasn’t a trained professional, like Isaiah or Jeremiah or most of the others. You will perhaps recall that when the Hebrew people told God they wanted to have a king, God said okay, you won’t like them, but I require that each one have a prophet, whose job it would be to remind the king that he was not God. And so an entire profession evolved around being the court appointed prophet.

          Amos was different. He lived in Judah, the southern kingdom, and as he readily admits in this book, he wasn’t a prophet. He wasn’t even the son of a prophet. He was a shepherd and a sycamore tree trimmer. But something moved him to go north, to Israel, and to get up in the face of king Jereboam. It was perhaps beneath Jereboam to deal with this, so he tapped his professional prophet, Amaziah, to take Amos out back and tell him to get out of town. He was rocking the boat. But Amos dug in and would not go until he had said his peace.

          Now, oddly enough, these were not particularly bad times in the north.  (And this is the point where I start cocking an ear and listening for the similarities between their times and ours.) Their economy was good. They weren’t at war. Things seem to be pretty painless. But look at what happens when things get comfortable.  For them, it was the occasion for those with wealth to take advantage of those less powerful and resourceful as they, and get richer. Time tested values, like the sanctity of the family and family land, were eroding. People seem to have been selling land that in earlier times they would have seen as a sacred trust and gift from God. Nothing they could see was really coming apart, because it was coming apart so slowly. But to someone coming in from the outside, the deterioration of the values and ethics of the people of the north was an abomination.

          And into this seemingly harmless situation, God tells Amos that God isn’t going to forgive them! I cannot think of anywhere else in scripture where God says this! Even when they were being hauled off into exile, God still says, I am effectively abandoning you, but only for a season. My love will not leave you, even though my physical blessing on your life will be gone.

          And Amos shares this in a vision. It’s one of five dreams that he has. And of course, here is where the cultural leap from there to here gets hard. God asks Amos what he sees, and he says, a basket of summer fruit. It then goes on to make no sense, because you and I don’t know Hebrew! Shame on us! The Hebrew word for summer fruit is Qayits. The Hebrew word for the End is Qets. Amos saw the fruit, in his dream, but would have heard the word. God was announcing the end of this period of privilege and abuse.

          A rich man might have walked into the northern kingdom and admired the McMansions, or as a friend of mine calls them, starter castles. But a shepherd would walk in and see the people upon whose backs these fortunes were made. And he goes to the king with a simple message. You don’t treat people like that.

          Here is where I want to peel off and start doing my homework. Our economy is doing great. Our democracy is in danger. Our social fabric is being torn to shreds. And it seems to me we have decision to make. Are we going to be a nation again, or are we satisfied with simply being an economy. Because this is the place to which we seem to have come, in my mind.

          And the word that floats up out of here is the word Justice. Amos doesn’t use it, but it’s there. Fairness, treating all people with dignity. The golden rule.

          We are intentionally mistreating immigrants at the border so they will stop coming. That is a strategy. It presumes a mentality of scarcity, that there really isn’t enough to go around, and that some people are better than others. Israel had adopted this stance. And Amos, as boldly as it can be stated, says, God doesn’t plan to forgive that. You will wander around looking for God to bless what you’re doing, and you won’t find it.

          We live, at times, with a too easy faith. We figure that when we get to the end, if we just hustle up and apologize for everything we can think of that we didn’t bother correcting when we could, that God will forgive and forget. And I believe that God does forgive. God has claimed us forever as God’s own. But not only does God not forget, neither does anybody else.

          If God’s desire is for real justice, how does that happen? Through reparations? Through porous borders? Through quotas? I don’t know. I think things are so skewed these days, that the righteous way forward is a delicate selection of careful steps. A first step, however, is an ethical commitment to justice.

          Please put that word in your pocket, and move with me into the letter to the Colossians.

          Not much is known about the context of this letter. It is thought that perhaps it was an encyclical, a letter sent out to be read all along the Christian circuit. There is some historical data to indicate that it might have been written to the three cities of Hieropolis, Collosae and Laodicea, around the time when each of these cities was leveled by an earthquake. The other contextual window into this letter was the fact that in that area, which I am guessing is along the west coast of what is now the nation of Turkey, they were close enough to Rome and Athens that the notion of multiple gods would have been east to think about. Any effort to persuade people to throw in with the one true God would have been an argument made against polytheism, or the belief in multiple gods. Listen to God’s word to us. (Read Colossians 1:15-28)

          This is really the earliest word we have that makes the connection between the Christ who rules the cosmos from before the beginning until after the end, and the intimate messiah who comes to you in your room, in your heart, and says, “follow me.”

          The message here is simple. Jesus Christ is our poster child for understanding the way God is. The personality of Jesus is the personality of God. The priorities of Jesus are the priorities of God. He was sent to show us what God cares about. His willingness to suffer for us and with us is exactly what God is willing to do.

          God also wants something else, and it is the word that floats up from this word. Reconciliation.

          Here we go with another one of those good churchy words that we say oh yeah, reconciliation. I’m for that. What does that mean again?

          Well it’s as simple as this. Kiss and make up. Bury the hatchet. Let bygones be bygones. Heal the relationship that got broken. And be prepared to do the hard work that this requires.

          And God’s process is one that makes contemporary therapists cringe. It’s called triangulation. This passage is saying, to me anyway, if you can’t love each other, then both of you, all of you love me, and at least there will be this much of a bond that you share. And maybe you can build a relationship off of that.

          This letter says that reconciliation has been a fundamental rhythm of God’s movement since the dawn of creation. God is always putting things back together. It’s what God does. It’s what makes the world work well.

          We live in a time when we can’t make these two words work together. If we strive for justice, someone’s going to get punished. If we strive for reconciliation, someone who has been wronged in the past will be expected to suck it up and get over it.

          This seems to be one of the standoffs in the middle of the millions of standoffs we face these days. The historian Will Durant said that societies can either choose to be fair or they can choose to be equal, but they cannot be both. Either everyone gets the same, regardless of merit, or everyone gets what they earn and deserve, and are rewarded according to their abilities, their worth to the culture. Of course, right now we have neither. In our world a mediocre shortstop makes more money in half a season than a great teacher does in a whole career. And if Amos is right, God isn’t going to forget that.

          And so here, at the end of the sermon, I feel like I have done you a disservice. I feel like I have said all this, only to get to the point of asking a question. If in fact we buy the notion that the idea of justice is sacred, and that the idea of reconciliation is also sacred, how does this happen? And by sacred, which is another word that may have gotten away from us, I simply mean a thing that is important to God, a thing that is in harmony with what makes creation work well, a thing that gives life to life.

          The fact is that it’s too easy to live in the other camp. Business is business, politics is politics, it’s a dog eat dog world and get what you can, or simply ignore the fact that you and I, as hard as we may have worked doing what we have done, still enjoy a level of privilege that most of the world does not. And we are, every day, whether we know it or not, confronted with God’s heartfelt entreaty that we do justice, love kindness and mercy, the things that make for reconciliation, and walk humbly with our God. I pray that with God’s help, we can. I pray that we even want to, because maybe if we want to badly enough, we will. Amen.

  August 2021  
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